President Trump has been ridiculed for his references to the “deep state” but, at least when it comes to U.S. Middle East policy, he is talking about a real phenomenon. I am talking about officials commonly referred to as Arabists, who seek to influence policy to Israel’s detriment.
Most people don’t realize that the United States had little involvement in the Middle East prior to World War Two. Those diplomats who first became active in the region were mentored by the anti-Zionist and often anti-Semitic members of the British Foreign Office. Consequently, many of the early diplomats adopted similar views, at first opposing the creation of a Jewish state, then working to undermine its independence and, more recently, seeking to create a wedge between Israel and the United States.
The Arabists are driven by the specious notion that strong relations with Israel jeopardize American-Arab relations, the belief that Israel is a burden and that they know what is best for Israelis. They are not confined to the State Department either; they can be found in key positions in the Pentagon, CIA and other agencies.
Originally, “Arabist” was not a dirty word, to the contrary, it described scholars who spoke the languages of the Middle East and were experts on the region’s history and culture. It later took on a pejorative meaning associated with government officials who often became afflicted with “clientitis,” that is, the tendency to be more interested in representing the interests of the country where they were posted than those of the United States. The Arabists have been a nefarious influence for decades and because they are most often civil servants rather than political appointees, they have been nearly impossible to dislodge.
Evidence of Arabist thinking in the Trump administration is reflected by a number of efforts to subvert the president’s policies. One example was the fight over whether to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. Though many officials had legitimate concerns about the impact of pulling out, particularly with regard to the impact on our allies, the Arabists were more concerned that the United States was being manipulated by the Israeli lobby, which they falsely accuse of trying to provoke a war with Iran.
A second example was the campaign to prevent the president from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving our embassy. For years, the Arabists objected to American recognition and also discouraged other nations from doing so. The Arabists insisted this would sabotage the peace process and provoke widespread Muslim violence against American interests.
As usual, their predictions were wrong. There was no peace process to undermine before the Jerusalem decision and, if anything, recognizing Israel’s capital boosted the prospects for peace by sending the Palestinians the message that they are not getting a capital in Jerusalem. The Arabists were also wrong about Arab and Muslim reaction. The embassy move produced no violence against Americans.
Once the decision was made to move the embassy, the Arabists tried to delay the move long enough that a new president might be elected who would reverse the decision. Hence, you heard how it was going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct a new embassy and take years to complete. The president quickly overcame the resistance by simply changing the sign on the Israeli consulate to convert that into an embassy. It took months, not years, and cost something like $250,000.
One other example of how the Arabists have still not accepted this decision is their decades-long campaign to prevent Americans born in Jerusalem from having their birthplace on their passports listed as Jerusalem, Israel. Fifty-five members of Congress asked the State Department to correct this anomaly whereby U.S. citizens have no country of birth. You may recall that the courts thwarted an earlier effort to force the Department to make this change on grounds that this is a decision for the Executive Branch. Secretary of State Pompeo could change this absurd policy with a stroke of his pen.
The latest and perhaps most disturbing manifestation of the continued existence of the deep state, was the leak to the press suggesting that Israeli actions in Syria might endanger U.S. soldiers. This is a staple of Arabist propaganda, which conveniently neglects the fact that radical Islamists reject our way of life, our presence in the Middle East and seek our destruction regardless of Israel’s policies or even existence.
We heard a version of this argument during the Obama administration when, for example, the Central Command issued this statement:
Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [the part of the Middle East under this command] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaida and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.
The idea that U.S.-Arab relations would suffer if the United States grew closer to Israel was always nonsense. Today, U.S.-Israel relations are closer than ever, U.S.-Arab relations are also strong and, if that is not enough to rebut the Arabists, you have a growing move toward normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab states. This has been possible in part because of the shared interest in opposing the Iranian threat, but also because the Arab states do not see the “Palestinian question” as the central issue in the region, which should put a stake in the heart of one of the Arabists’ core beliefs – if not for their undaunted ability to resurrect discredited ideas from the dead.